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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Oracle

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occurs in several places in the Auth. Ver. as the rendering of the Heb. דְּבַיר , debir, ordinarily derived from דָּבִר, in the sense to say, speak; i. e. the response or place of the voice of God. But the best critics understand it to mean properly a back-chamber, a back or west room, from דָּבִר, to be behind (see Gesenius, Thes., and esp. Furst, Lex. s.v.); hence the inner or most secret room of the Temple (1 Kings 6, passim; 7:49; 8:6, 8; 2 Chronicles 3:16; 2 Chronicles 4:20; 2 Chronicles 5:7; 2 Chronicles 5:9; Psalms 28:2), elsewhere called "the Holy of Holies" (Heb. הִקָּדָשַׁים קֹרֶשׁ, 1 Kings 6:16; 2 Chronicles 4:22, and often). (See TEMPLE). The Sept. in these passages simply adoptsthe Hebrew word:( τὸ δαβίρ ) "but Jerome followed" by some modern versions, renders oraculum the word used by the heathen to denote the places where they consuited their gods. In 2 Samuel 16:23, the Hebrew word rendered oracle is dabdr (דָּבָר )., which usually means word, and is often applied thus to the word or revelation of God (see margin, ad loc.; so Jeremiah 1:4; Jeremiah 1:11). In the N.T. only the word oracles is found, in the plural (as the rendering of the Greek λόγια, Acts 7:38), especially the oracles of God (τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ, Romans 3:2; comp. Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11), in reference to the divine communications which had been given to the Jews throughout their history, (See HOLY OF HOLIES); (See URIM).

The manner of such utterances among the Hebrews was various. God spake to his people of old at sundry times and in divers manners sometimes face to face, as with Abraham and Moses sometimes by dreams and visions, as with Joseph and Pharaoh sometimes by signs and tokens, as with Gideon and Barak sometimes by the word of prophecy and sometimes by a regularly organized system of communication, as by the Urim and Thummim. (See PRIEST).

These last, which had a distinct locality, and were always accessible, were especially the Hebrew oracles. We have an instance in the case of David (1 Samuel 23:9); when he desired to know whether it would be safe for him to take refuge with the men of Keilah, against the persecution of Saul, he inquired of Abiathar the priest. "Bring hither," said he, "the ephod;" and the reply to his inquiry was that it would not be safe, for the men of Keilah would deliver him up to the king. Another similar instance occurs in the same book (1 Samuel 30:7-8); and there appears no reason to doubt that such was the mode of "inquiring at the mouth of the Lord" for a considerable period. (See DIVINATION); (See EPHOD); (See INSPIRATION); (See REVELATION).

The most ancient oracle on record, probably, is that given to Rebekah (Genesis 25:22); but the most complete scriptural instance is that of the child Samuel (1 Samuel 3). The place was the residence of the ark, the regular station of worship. The manner was by an audible and distinct voice: "The Lord called Samuel;" and the child mistook the voice for that of Eli (and this more than once), "for he did not yet know the word of the Lord." The subject was of high national importance; no less than a public calamity, with the ruin of the first family in the land. Nor could the child have any inducement to deceive Eli; as in that case he would have rather invented something flattering to his venerable superior. This communicative voice, issuing from the interior of the sanctuary, was properly an oracle. (See SAMUEL).

Heathen oracles are occasionally referred to in the Scriptures, and one in particular seems to have been very celebrated. This was the oracle of Baalzebub, or Baalzebul, at Ekron. Ahaziah, the son of Ahab (2 Kings 1:2), having fallen through a lattice in his upper chamber, and suffering greatly in consequence, sent to Ekron to inquire of this oracle, and his messenger was stopped by Elijah, who administered to the king of Israel a reproof for consulting a false god, and gave him the assurance of speedy death. The name Baalzebub, signifying "lord of a fly," has been occasionally interpreted as a derisive appellation bestowed by the Jews on the god worshipped at Ekron; but there is little ground for this criticism. Ekron was much infested by flies, and these were often believed to bring with them contagious disorders. The god whom the inhabitants supposed able to deliver them from these minute but vexatious enemies might well take a title from the exploit, just as the Jupiter, or rather Zeus, of the Greeks assumed among other epithets those of Μυιώδης and Μυίαγρος . (See BEEL-ZEBUB).

Other oracular means in Palestine were the Teraphim, as that of Micah (Judges 17:1-5); the ephod of Gideon (8:27, etc.), and the false gods adored in the kingdom of Samaria, which had their false prophets, and consequently. their oracles. Hosea 4:12 reproaches Israel with consulting wooden idols, as does the book of Wisdom (13:16, 17) and the prophet in Habakkuk 2:19. (See IDOLATRY). For the daemoniacal responses referred to in Acts 16:16, (See PYTHONESS)... Among the heathen the term oracle was usually taken to signify an answer, generally conveyed in very dark and ambiguous terms, supposed to be given by daemons of old, either by the mouths of their idols or by those of their priests, to the people who consulted them; Oracle is also used for the daemon who gave the answer, and the place where it was given. Seneca defines oracles to be communications by the mouths of men of the will of the gods; and Cicero simply calls them deorum oratio, the language of the gods. Among the pagans they were held in high estimation; and they were consulted on a variety of occasions pertaining to national enterprises and private life. When the heathen made peace or war, enacted laws, reformed states, or changed the constitution, they had in all these cases recourse to the oracle by public authority. Also, in private life. if a man wished to marry, if he proposed to take a journey, or to engage in any business of importance, he repaired to the oracle for counsel. Mankind have always had a propensity to explore futurity; and, conceiving that future events were known to their gods, who possessed the gift of prophecy, they sought information and advice from the oracles, which in their opinion were supernatural and divine communications. Accordingly, every nation in which idolatry has subsisted has also had its oracles, by means of which imposture was practiced on superstition and credulity. (See PROPHECY).

The principal oracles of antiquity among the Greeks were that of Abe, mentioned by Herodotus; that of Amphiaraus, at Oropus, in Macedonia; that of the Branchidae, at Didymeum; that of the camps at Lacedaemon; that of Dodona; that of Jupiter Ammon; that of Nabarca, in the country of the Anariaci, near the Caspian Sea; that of Trophonius. mentioned by Herodotus; that of Chrysopolis; that of Claros, in Ionia; that of. Amphilochus, at Mallos; that of Petarea; that of Pella, in Macedonia; that of Phaselides, in Cilicia; that of Sinope, in Paphlagonia; that of Orpheus's head at Lesbos, mentioned by Philostratus. But of all the oracles, the oracle of Apollo Pythius, at Delphi, was' the most celebrated. The responses of oracles were delivered in a variety of ways: At Delphi the priestess of Apollo was seated on a tripod over a fissure in the rock, from which issued an intoxicating vapor, under the influence of which the priestess delivered incoherent hexameter verses, which were interpreted by the priests. At Dodona the responses were uttered from beneath the shade of a venerable oak. The oracle of Tropholius was in a cavern, in which the inquirer spent the night. The god replied by visions, which were usually of so awful a character that it was said that he who had passed a night in the cave of Trophonius was never again seen to smile. Uniformly the answers of oracles were given in ambiguous terms, and capable of quite opposite and contradictory interpretations. The Romans, who had the Sibylline books, augury, and many other means of discovering the will of the gods, never adopted the oracle. The ancient Scandinavians had their oracles, and it was generally believed by all the Northern nations that the Three Destinies gave forth these oracles. Some, among whom were nearly all the fathers of the early Church, contend that these oracular responses were really given by daemons; citing as proof a host of testimonies to their truth in ancient times, the fact that all oracles died away soon after the coming of Christ, who gave to the early Church miraculous gifts by which such utterances were stopped; and arguing that much more glory is given to God by a theory which allowed the reality and continuance of diabolic power than by one which resolved all such wonders into mere fraud and imposture. Others, among whom are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius, maintain that they were but more or less refined examples of imposture; dwelling on the ambiguity of most of the recorded responses which indeed were so contrived that, whatever happened, the event would justify the oracle the merely traditional testimony concerning those cited as true, and observing that oracles continued after Christ, and that some of the most remarkable miracles claimed by the post-apostolic Church rest upon that continued existence. The ambiguity of the oracles in their responses, and their double meaning, contributed much to their support. But notwithstanding all these and other precautions, the heathen priests succeeded very imperfectly in maintaining the credit of the oracles.

The wiser and more sagacious of the heathen, especially in later times, held them in utter contempt. They were ridiculed by the comic poets; and the pretendedly inspired priestess was, in several instances, even popularly accused of being bribed to prophesy according to the interests of a particular party. Such was the poor success of false prophecy, even with all the aids of art, and a systematic plan of imposture, to preserve it from detection. The ancient and beautiful tradition (see Plutarch, De Oraculorunm defectu) above referred to, that immediately on our Savior's death all the heathen oracles became silent, cannot indeed be supported in the face of many testimonies of ancient writers to responses given after that time (see esp. Plutarch, De Pyth. Orac. c. xxiv); but the legend, in the sense in which it has passed into modern Christian poetry as emblematic of the triumphs of the cross, is sufficiently justified by their rapid decline in the apostolic age (comp. Strabo, 9, p. 420; Pausan. 10:7,1). See Manger, De Adyto דביר (Tr. ad Bk. 1751); Milton, Hymns on the Nativity; E. B. Browning, The Dead Pan; Schiller, Gotter Griechenlands. (See NECROMANCER); (See WITCHCRAFT).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Oracle'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/o/oracle.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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